The Evolving Art of ASHANTI KENTE WEAVING in Ghana

Article excerpt

Art reflects life; therefore changes in beliefs, technologies, economic factors, and political agendas all elicit responses in the art world.

While teaching art education at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, we often escorted our students to some of the Kente weaving sites in Bonwire Village. On one such excursion on April 5, 2002, we noticed that a young woman named Gifty sat at a narrow strip loom weaving Kente cloth on the veranda of her family house. As we passed by we were shocked at this unusual scene. Everyone in Ghana knew that only men wove Kente cloth. What was going on here? We were compelled to find an explanation for what was clearly a major deviation from existing research, as well as what we believed to be true about traditional Kente cloth production. Much later, after conducting a study, we realized that although this day stood out in our minds as highly memorable, in a broader sense, it marked evolutionary changes in social and cultural norms being played out in the world of Ghanaian art.

As art educators, we face constant challenges to understanding the impact of contextual issues on artistic production. Part of that understanding should be an acceptance that philosophies and practices in art change with the times. Art reflects life; therefore changes in beliefs, technologies, economic factors, and political agendas all elicit responses in the art world. Many multicultural art education scholars agree on the need for more contextual information on non-Western arts, recommending research that connects areas of art and culture in an anthropological sense. In addition to the art historical or formal analysis perspectives used in Western art, this approach includes the numerous issues that influence art production and use (Bastos, 2006; Chalmers, 1996; Chanda, 1990; Collins 8c Sandell, 1992; Daniel, 1990; Delacruz, 1996; Hart, 1991; McFee, 1998; Stuhr, 2003). Kader (2006) stressed the need to understand cultural arts in their complex and fluid socio-historical contexts. In this article, we examine the centuries-old art of Kente weaving on the cusp of change, at the moment when it is evolving in response to various social and economic factors, from its traditional position in the social structure of Ghana, to a new model, whose significance is yet undetermined.

It goes without saying that we should be aware of the multiple agents of cause and effect in our own cultural context, a job that is difficult enough, but the challenge to understand factors influencing arts from cultures unfamiliar to us is particularly daunting. The body of information on the art of foreign cultures is vast and often inscrutable, making it very difficult for us to absorb and teach with accuracy or depth. With the demanding teaching schedule most art teachers face, the natural tendency is to utilize information that is easily accessible, even when it is limited and outdated. Such superficial contextual accounts often fail to reveal the fluid nature of the artistic process, one that is responsive to cultural change as it occurs.

Gender Roles in the Arts

One role of art historians and other critical scholars is to update our perspectives on matters that previously seemed set and fixed. Such critical research has helped to alter Western perspectives on women in the arts. For example, in the early 1970s, art historian Linda Nochlin uncovered little-known information on aspiring women painters in the Western art world. She drew our attention to causal factors that impacted women's success, or lack thereof, in the arts. In her groundbreaking work, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971,1973), Nochlin provided a nuanced view of male hegemony in the European art world, a view of which most of us were unaware. Her research deepens our understanding of the circumstances and forces that curtailed women's access to artistic training and exhibition venues.

Activism is another force that brought about change in the gendered world of Western art. …